When I attended my first Southern funeral, I was just 7 years old. The dearly departed was a distant great-aunt whom I had seen maybe once or twice in my life—a calculated move on my parents’ part. As a small-town Southern girl with big extended families on both sides, they realized, I would need to be trained in funeral etiquette, so they started with a service that wouldn’t be overly emotional for me.
Even though I was just a second-grader, my mother dressed me in a simple brown dress, tights, and my Sunday shoes. No big bows. No pouf. Thanks to her, I knew how to dress for a funeral before I knew my multiplication tables. So it came as a bit of a shock, when I Googled “funeral dresses,” and saw what popped up.
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On the positive side, there were some understated, below-the-knee black dresses with modest necklines and three-quarter-length sleeves. (Mama would approve.) But here’s what else I saw:
A black mini with a full skirt, sweetheart neckline, and spaghetti straps
(Mama would tell that little sister to sew a very long black ruffle on the bottom and put on a tailored, preferably long, jacket.)
Black hotpants and bra top with black illusion fabric on the sleeves, neck, and midriff
(Mama would say, "Take that tacky thing OFF right this very SECOND and put on something DECENT!")
Black dresses that were long-sleeved and high-necked but also skin-tight, with sky-high hemlines and spike heels
(Mama would say, “Dear, are you attending a funeral or opening at Big Bob’s Roadside Lounge?”)
I was also surprised by the kind of guidance that fashion editors and bloggers feel they need to give grown women:
Nothing backless, strapless, bare-shouldered, or otherwise sexy
(Mama would say, “At a funeral????!!!!!!”)
Nothing in bright, bold colors and prints
(It’s not like you’re glad Great-Aunt Mertis is gone . . . are you?)
No glammed-out makeup.
(Mama can assure you that the cemetery is no place for a smoky eye or pouty lips. And while she’s at it, leave the neon novelty nail polish in the drawer, as well.)
No sneakers or flip-flops
(Mama’s gonna have to ask you to go fetch her smelling salts. The very thought of flip-flops at a funeral is giving her a case of the vapors.)
Back in the sixties, some Southern women had an easy solution to all the confusion surrounding bereavement attire. They owned an official funeral outfit—not a dress that would work for funerals but a funeral dress. My mother and her sister made theirs from either a Simplicity or McCall’s dress pattern. The dresses were dark-colored, conservatively cut shifts that fell below the knee and had short sleeves, a round neck, and a tie belt. The ladies work simple matching headpieces with little net veils attached—just enough to cover the eyes.
Maybe in today’s modern South, that’s going a bit too far. Even down here, styles have relaxed quite a bit. On the other hand, if we had a Mama-approved, go-to funeral dress, no sister would ever go astray and wear a cocktail dress and sneakers to pay her respects to Great-Aunt Mertis.
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Mama doen't have to tell you what's going to become of those $120 jeans if she sees them in the floor again, now does she, son? Bless your heart.